Green Web  Bulletin #29

An exchange between James O'Connor and David Orton in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism,
Vol. 2, No. 3, Issue 8, October 1991 It shows a fundamental clash of values between a
Marxist perspective on the environment and that of an ecocentrist who is also on the Left.

    Discussion:  Socialist  Biocentrism*

* Although I remain a socialist, I no longer use the term "socialist biocentrism", which is incongruent
 with the theoretical tendency of left biocentrism. This tendency defines itself as anti-industrial
 and anti-capitalist, but not necessarily socialist. "S
ocialist biocentrism" is too forgiving
towards the anti-ecological
characteristics of this important human-centered movement, and too
towards those concerned with social justice who do not see themselves as socialists.

        James O'Connor:
            David Orton's  "Opposing Forest Spraying" (CNS Six, February, 1991) is an informative and insightful account
        of the ruthless capitalization of nature in Nova Scotia; the political and other barriers that face local green struggles
        to end chemical-based forest industry; and some ways that these barriers might be overcome.

            My problem with the article is that I don't understand what Orton's biocentrist perspective has to do with his
        ecological/political practise. I am not a biocentrist, but I support these struggles and might well join in directly if I
        lived in Nova Scotia. I do not support "opposing forest spraying" because I think that nature is inherently valuable,
        hence put saving nature first, and social, economic, and political issues second. It seems to me that the word "value"
        is a human word, with human meanings, in this case transposed to non-human nature. Hence to say that nature is
        inherently valuable means that it is inherently valuable to humans. I support these struggles because non-chemical
        forests do not make people and wildlife sick; because such forests might have recreational value; because I want
        to leave the world in a little better shape than I've found it, for future generations; and because I like the idea that
        non-chemical forests exist. Why does David have to be a biocentrist to support his program and demands? Put
        another way, while I think I understand why a biocentrist could (must?) take Orton's position, I don't understand
        why the same position couldn't be taken by someone who isn't a biocentrist. On the other hand, even from a
        biocentrist perspective (which I assume would mean leaving the forests alone, excluding subsistence or local
        barter and trade uses), it might make sense to use chemicals in certain situations to save the forest from some
        threatening tree disease. Or would it?

            More generally, I'm confused about the meaning of "socialist biocentrism." Does it mean "anti-capitalism?" Or a
        particular theory of capitalism which is called "socialist?" Or a belief in certain traditional socialist values, such as
        equality? If it's the former, the problem arises, how to distinguish "socialism" from other forms of anti-capitalism. If
        it means a "socialist" theory of capitalism and its destruction of nature and people, then it must mean "Marxist," since
        Marxism is the only socialist theory I know which presents itself as a theory of capitalism. If it's the belief in socialist
        values, since traditional values, e.g., equality, historically have been given high priority by socialists, then how can
        we square a "nature first" position with "socialism?" Put another way, how can you have a biocentric relation with
        the rest of nature without a political practise against the economic and political structures which result in the
        degradation of nature (as Orton has) without attacking less "fundamental" social and economic and political issues,
        e.g., inequality, exploitation, alienation, state oppression or the state itself, etc. If this is so, why are these issues
        seen as less "fundamental" than the preservation of nature? Put another way, are inequality and poverty acceptable
        if nature is not harmed by humans?

            I'm also confused about what David calls "alternative" forests and forest issues. It's unclear to me whether he is
        against the capitalization of all nature, or merely that of pulpwood forests (specifically, the shift from diversified
        forests to pulpwood forests). Would he support limited pulpwood uses? If not, then I suppose that we would need
        to use recycled paper, period. More needs to be said on the subject of biocentric "alternatives." Under a
        biocentric regime, who would get to use the forest? For what end? Using what forestry methods? Orton rejects the
        view that "the non-human world is there as material for the human purpose," but the extreme version of this view,
        namely, that no human purpose should be served by the non-human world, is obviously absurd. I'm sure Orton
        wouldn't take this position. This means that there needs to be criteria for using the non-human world. Breathing is
        clearly ok. But what about paving over? Using forest products for local subsistence needs? Using products for
        local barter and trade? Using products for regional and long-distance trade?


        David Orton:
            Jim O'Connor sent me some critical comments on socialist biocentrism and asked me to respond. To be honest,
        my heart sank at this task, as so many questions were raised by Jim, and I knew that there were no "right"
        answers that would satisfy. Yet I do know that there are many unanswered questions concerning socialist
        biocentrism, and the time is overdue for some of them to be discussed. My reply tries to address four of the key
        questions raised:
        1) The relationship of theory to practice in biocentrism;
        2) Why nature is ultimately more important than society;
        3) What does socialist biocentrism mean, from a socialist perspective; and
        4) Can a pulpwood forestry be supported?

            First, some general remarks are necessary. A commentary "Socialist Biocentrism: What Is It" in the CNS
Eight (September/October, 1989), mentioned that this conceptual perspective was introduced by Helga
        Hoffmann and myself in a paper "Green Marginality In Canada" given at the Learned Societies Conference,
        Laval University, in June, 1989. The paper summed-up our experience over a number of years, as two people
        from a left-wing background, organizing as greens and environmentalists, and trying to combine a biocentric and
        socialist perspective -  without any guidelines to work from.

            It is important to understand that there are a number of people who consciously have a biocentric position and
        consider themselves socialists or on the left in some way.(1) My experience is that the people I have contact with,
        or know about, holding such views, do not consider themselves supporters of social ecology or of one of the strong
        trends in CNS, ecological Marxism. So we are talking about a left tendency, which has a real, even if not yet
        strongly defined, theoretical existence, in the green and environmental movements. There is, of course, a
        considerable literature on deep ecology itself, although much of it I find rather esoteric and removed from practical
        work. It can be found in a number of academic journals, e.g., Environmental Ethics and The Trumpeter:
        Journal of Ecosophy
. While there are some thoughtful and perceptive articles in Environmental Ethics, I prefer
        the more practically-focused movement publications, where basic concepts such as biocentrism,(2) conservation
        biology, ecotage, and reports of actual struggles around ecological issues are worked with. Examples are the
        Earth First! Journal
, Wild Earth and (in the cross-border publication in the Northeast) The Glacial Erratic.
        I believe, based on my own experience of organizing and networking with other activists, that biocentrism is
        becoming a major theoretical orientation in the green and environmental movements, in Canada and the United
        States. That socialists can be biocentrists, and can contribute to ecological struggles, is also beginning to be
        accepted, I believe.

            Concluding these general comments, the CNS Newsletter article noted, "Socialist greens, will have to define
        collectively the dimensions of socialist biocentrism." It is important therefore to stress that these comments give my
        own views, and should not be construed as any kind of "doctrine," but as a contribution to a needed discussion.

            What is the relationship of theory to practice? This seems to exist on several different levels:

        1. An organizer has to be involved, concretely, in ecological struggles. Doing work, which moves the struggles
        forward and which others can learn from, practically and theoretically. This is crucial. Edward Abbey, in his novel
        The Monkey Wrench Gang, which has inspired many in Earth First!, has Doc Sarvis, the "theoretician" of the
        group saying, "We'll work it all out as we go along. Let our practice form our doctrine, thus assuring precise
        theoretical coherence."

        2. At the local (provincial) level, one relates to others on the basis of their practical involvement, in issues of mutual
        concern, irrespective of the level of theoretical awareness or agreement. So, for example, if a person is active in
        opposing forest spraying, clearcutting, destruction of wildlife habitat, etc., it is irrelevant that this person might have
        a grade three education, and not interested in biocentric discussions. The organizer networks and works with those
        who are active on a basis of mutual respect.

        3. A biocentrist intervenes in ecological struggles, based on what is believed to be the appropriate ecology,
        irrespective of whether such positions have political or social support. For example, one organizes to put forward
        the position that pesticides should not be used in forestry, despite (say) insect damage: this because pesticides
        violate natural succession and healing processes, and toxicity questions, although important, are secondary. If an
        anthropocentric view is upheld, then the main problem becomes not the use of pesticides, but whether or not they
        are safe. A biocentrist does not look at the natural world as a "resource" for human use, treating as "pests" life
        forms which interfere with such use. Seals and coyotes should not be killed because these animals are seen as
        "competing" with humans. Their interests are defended, irrespective of how unpopular this is.

        4. One consciously interacts with a network of individuals who share a biocentric position, and who are concerned
        with theoretical questions, on a provincial, national and international basis. Some of these individuals also share a
        socialist perspective. The letter exchange helps theoretical clarification.

            Why is nature ultimately more important than society? Perhaps there are a number of reasons why
        biocentrists come to adopt such a position, and I am sure the personal factor is important. For me, this position is
        a way of undermining human arrogance, and showing that our human concerns are not too important in the
        evolutionary scheme of things. We have to see how on a massive scale we can extend personal self-identity to
        include the well-being of the Earth (the Council of All Beings(3)  is a mechanism used to try and reconnect people
        to the Earth). The paradox is that the destiny of what will happen to the Earth rests in human hands, yet Nature
        does not need humans to survive. It is necessary to have humans speak up for non-human life forms because they
        have no voice in a world in which discourse is human-centered. That humans are prepared to suffer state
        repression to uphold such a position is important for the integrity of this perspective, and it is here that the Earth
        First! movement has made such a contribution. Putting Nature first extends ethical values beyond human-
        centered concerns. This is a necessary step for a different caring relationship to the Earth, which also, paradoxically,
        could mean that the human species flourishes.

            What does socialist biocentrism mean from a socialist perspective? It is anti-capitalist because capitalism,
        as an economic system, is rooted in growth and the promotion of consumerism without end. For capitalism, all of
        Nature becomes a resource. So capitalism, by its nature, is anti-ecological. "Actually existing socialism" or
        communism has embraced growth, unsuccessfully sought a western style consumerism, and treated Nature as a
        resource. There has been no different model for relating to Nature or for more harmonious social relations within
        society. Both capitalism and socialism/consumerism have had a human-centered world view. Yet unlike capitalism,
        socialism does not by intrinsic nature have to be rooted in growth; be anthropocentric; treat Nature as a
        resource solely for human use; and be hostile to basic democratic rights that express dissenting and critical opinions.
        But the still to be defined green socialism will be completely different from anything which so far has come on the
        historical stage, and it obviously conflicts with many traditionally held socialist beliefs. Socialist biocentrists share,
        and work for, the traditional socialist concerns for social justice, and an end to class privilege. But ecology and a
        harmonious relationship to the Earth is at the center of their vision of a new green socialism.

            Can a pulpwood forestry be supported? The answer is, not in its existing manifestation in Canada. The
        country, according to Environment Canada, has 155 pulp and paper mills manufacturing, pulp, paper, paperboard,
        hardboard, and insulating board, cutting annually an area about 1.5 times the size of Prince Edward Island for pulp.
        This is an export-oriented industry. Canada is the largest producer and exporter of newsprint (about 31 percent
        of global supply), and also produces about 16 percent of the world's wood pulp. A chlorine bleaching process is
        used by 47 of the mills - meaning large amounts of organochlorines (chlorine which is bound to organic material,
        including dioxins and furans) are discharged in the mill effluent. About 50 percent of all the waste that is dumped
        into Canadian waters comes from the main industrial polluter, the pulp and paper industry.(4) There are also,
        depending on the pulping process, emissions of gases like sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, methyl mercaptan,
        dimethyl sulphide and dimethyl disulphide. Then there is the disposal of sludge, where the toxins are particularly
        concentrated - all this, plus a pulpwood forestry policy which clearcuts large areas, sprays pesticides, and
        promotes a narrow range of pulp species. Enormous quantities of water, chemicals and energy are consumed by
        the pulp and paper industry. The chemical and energy production for the mills contribute to the changes in
        atmospheric chemistry, now well underway in the world.

            The Canadian Pulp and Paper Association in June of 1989 issued an "Environmental Statement" which
        said: "It supports the responsible stewardship of resources, including forests, fish and aquatic habitat,
        wildlife, air, land and water. Responsible stewardship makes possible sustained economic development."
A polluting industry which considers all of Nature as subject to commercial exploitation, geared to continuous
        economic growth aimed at a world market, is not deserving of green support. What a socially necessary paper
        supply would be; the size of an appropriately scaled pulp and paper industry with zero toxic admissions; a
        sustainable ecological forestry policy to feed the mills; etc., are all clearly necessary topics of concern for
        socialist greens and green socialists.


        1. Andrew McLaughlin. "Ecology, Capitalism, and Socialism," Socialism and Democracy, Spring/Summer,
            1990. McLaughlin shows that all roads should lead to bioregional socialism.

        2. The term "ecocentrism" is now used instead of biocentrism by a number of supporters of deep ecology, e.g.,
            Warwick Fox, Robyn Eckersley, George Sessions, and Bill Devall.  But biocentrism is the term generally used
            in the movement. Robyn Eckersley speaks of "ecocentric socialism."

        3. For a description, see: John Seed, Joanna Macey, Pat Fleming and Arne Naess, Thinking Like a Mountain:
            Towards a Council Of All Beings
(Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1988).

        4. William F. Sinclair, Controlling Pollution from Canadian Pulp and Paper Manufactures: A Federal
(Environment Canada, March 1990). p. 34. Much of the data in this paragraph can be found in this
            book, which is very revealing, although an apology for the industry.

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